Charles Jarrott: Film director best known for 'Anne of the Thousand Days' and 'Mary, Queen of Scots'
Wednesday 09 March 2011
Charles Jarrott's most successful films were the first two he directed in Hollywood, the Elizabethan dramas Anne of the Thousand Days and Mary, Queen of Scots. He won a Golden Globe for the former, but perhaps tellingly, he was not nominated for an Oscar for either film, though Anne of the Thousand Days received 10 nominations, including Best Actor and Best Actress. Subsequently he had to live down the dubious distinction of having directed one of the worst screen musicals ever made, the ludicrous Lost Horizon (1973). But before taking up a Hollywood contract Jarrott worked for many years in television, and if his film career was not distinguished, his work on television included notable collaborations with such writers as Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, Alun Owen and Johnny Speight.
Born in 1927 in London, he was the son of a businessman and a former singer and dancer. As a teenager he served in the Second World War with the Royal Navy in the Far East, after which, inspired by his mother's show business past, he decided to try acareer on the stage. In 1949 he joined the Nottingham Repertory Theatre, acting as a juvenile lead and alsoserving as a stage director. In 1953 he went to Canada, where he acted with touring companies before becoming a resident leading actor with the Ottawa Theatre.
In 1954 he directed his first play for television, Bernard Slade's comedy Men Don't Make Passes, and the following year he moved to Toronto, where he played his first acting role on television. His co-star was Katherine Blake, whom he later married - she was the second of three wives.
Two years later he started directing for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, where he worked for the legendary producer Sydney Newman, and in 1960 he returned to the UK, where Newman had become a pioneer in the production of social realist drama and was the driving force behind such prestigious series as "Armchair Theatre" and "The Wednesday Play".
The first play Jarrott directed for "Armchair Theatre" was Eye Witness (1960), a thriller starring DianaWynyard and Paul Daneman. Dumb Martian (1962), written by John Wyndham and directed by Jarrott, was produced on "Armchair Theatre" as an introduction to a sci-fi thriller series, "Out of This World", hosted by Boris Karloff. Jarrott also directed an adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1961) with Jeremy Brett as Dorian, and his later historical successes on screen were foreshadowed when he directed his wife, Katharine Blake, as Mary Tudor in the television play The Young Elizabeth (1964).
In 1965 he directed Harold Pinter's play The Tea Party, adapted from a short story written by Pinter in 1963, featuring Leo McKern, John LeMesurier, Vivien Merchant, Jennifer Wright and Charles Gray. The production was the second in an ambitious project entitled "The Largest Theatre in the World", which originated when television professionals, gathered for the Italia Prize in 1960, decided to overcome language barriers by forming a European Broadcasting Union, for which nations would commission, from world-famous authors, plays that would be simultaneously produced in each country in its own language so that the audience would truly represent the largest theatre in the world.
The first play from the UK was Terence Rattigan's Heart to Heart (1962), while the second was The Tea Party. Two years later Jarrott directed another Pinter play for television, The Basement, in which the author played a leading role. Jarrott's work for "The Wednesday Play" included two dramas set in Ireland by Hugh Leonard, Silent Song and The Retreat (both 1966). He also worked with another major writer of the era, Arnold Wesker, when he directed for TV the "Wesker Trilogy", comprising Chicken Soup With Barley, Roots, and I'm Talking About Jerusalem (all 1966). The Canadian Broadcasting Company then asked him to direct an ambitious television movie, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968), with Jack Palance heading a cast that included Denholm Elliott, Billie Whitelaw and Tessie O'Shea. Some regarded Jarrott's film superior to the Hollywood versions, partly through Palance's fine depiction of the tortured hero, with less reliance on make-up than earlier versions. Producer Dan Curtis stated that because Palance's features were already sinister, they had to apply almost as much make-up to soften his looks for the Jekyll sequences as they did to make him sinister as Hyde.
Jarrott followed it with a television movie based on Henry Denker's play A Case of Libel (1968), its cast including Van Heflin, Angie Dickinson and Lloyd Bridges, after which he directed Johnny Speight's powerful anti-racist play If There Weren't Any Blacks You'd Have to Invent Them (1968). His last two TV plays before he went to the US were both by Alun Owen - MacNeil, starring Sean Connery, and Cornelius, starring Michael Caine.
One of Hollywood's most prolific producers, Hal Wallis, then askedhim to direct Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), based on Maxwell Anderson's play about the thousand-day reignof Anne Boleyn. Richard Burton as Henry VIII and Genevieve Bujoldas Anne were nominated for Oscars, and though some critics thoughtthe film ponderous and full of inaccuracies, it was a box-office hit. There was controversy, though, when it received 11 Oscar nominations but Jarrott was bypassed.
Jarrott's second film for Wallis was Mary, Queen of Scots, which included a fictional meeting between Maryand Queen Elizabeth, imaginatively played by Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson, but when it received five nominations with Jarrott again ignored, many wondered if the Academy agreed with the critic Pauline Kael, who had stated that Jarrott had no style or personality and was "just a traffic manager".
Jarrott's cause was certainly not helped by his next film, the expensive calamity Lost Horizon (1973), a tedious 151-minute musical version of James Hilton's romantic novel set in themystical land of Shangri-La. Every aspect of the film was mediocre - from the sets and costumes to the performances, the choreography by the usually reliable Hermes Pan and the sub-standard songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Its stars Peter Finch and Liv Ullman unconvincingly sang with dubbed voices.
Jarrott's next film was The Dove (1974), produced by Gregory Peck and based on the true account of a teenager who spent five years making a solo voyage around the world. Starring Joseph Bottoms, it was pleasant fare due largely to the sea-swept location photography of Sven Nykvist, but Jarrott's next, The Other Side of Midnight (1977) was a sprawling, mindless soap opera based on Sidney Sheldon's best-seller, which allowed too much time for the viewer to ponder its implausibilities and was another costly failure.
Jarrott returned to the UK to film Escape from the Dark (1977), a likeable turn-of-the-century tale of children saving the lives of pit ponies, then worked again with Bujold on The Last Flight of Noah's Ark (1980), a Disney production about a shipwrecked bunch of children and animals.
Another Disney production, Condorman (1981), starring Michael Crawford as a cartoonist transformed into a super-hero, was too fanciful even for children, and the majority of Jarrott's later films were made for television, including adaptations of best-sellers, such as Danielle Steel's Changes (1991) and Jackie Collins' Lady Boss (1992), and several biographies including Ike (1986), about General Eisenhower, and Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story (1987) starring Farrah Fawcett. His last feature was a low-budget thriller, Turn of Faith (2002), produced by and starring the former boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini.
Charles Jarrott, film and television director: born: London 16 June 1927; married 1949 Rosemary Palin (divorced 1957), 1958 Katharine Blake (divorced 1982), 1992 Suzanne Bledsoe (died 2003); died Hollywood 4 March 2011.
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